Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

cabinet dr caligari one sheetA silent film from the beginning of cinematic history? We don’t even have a good quality print – the best digital restoration available is flawed and has frequent glitches, lines running through the image and more. I’ll also admit that I’m not much of a fan of silent films and without focused study my attention wanders and I find something else to do.

But there’s something oddly compelling about the nightmarish vision of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with its weird, skewed sets and mythic story of charlatan Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his enslaved somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who exhibit at the Holstenwall town fair.
At the heart of things is a surprisingly modern triangle of best friends Francis (Friedrich Feher) and Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) and their mutual love Jane (Lil Dagover). When Alan is mysteriously murdered after Cesare eerily predicts his death while at the fair, Francis is suspicious and investigates, even as the town constable arrests another man for this and another murder, a man who swears his innocence but is locked up nonetheless.
Cinematically, director Robert Wiene offers one of the first examples of a film narrative where the viewer knows things that the characters in the story do not. We see the crimes and the perpetrator even as Francis cannot. Indeed, there’s a complex temporal facet to the film too, where it opens with Francis explaining to a stranger what’s happened to Jane, his fiancee, which then switches back to the story as it unfolds. Complex elements that we appreciate almost 100 years later demonstrated for perhaps the first time.
Does the criminal meet his moral comeuppance? For that matter, who is the criminal in this story, the somnambulist Cesare who is bewitched by Caligari, or Dr. Caligari himself? In the film world of 1920 there’s never a question that crime does not pay, and there’s something satisfying about the unambiguous ending.
Silent films with their slow pacing, hand-lettered dialog cards and rough, jumpy prints can be difficult for modern audiences to watch. This is a perfect film to DVR when it shows up again on Turner Classic Movies (that’s what I did). Look for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and enjoy a brilliant film from the beginning of cinematic history.
Oh, and if you recognize the name Conrad Veidt, it’s because he appears in dozens of films subsequent to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, most notably as Major Heinrich Strasser in Casablanca…

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